The Real Costs of the Federal Shutdown

October 18, 2013 | Olivia Golden

By Olivia Golden

This week, the House, Senate, and White House finally came to a long-overdue agreement to re-open the federal government - an agreement that matters enormously, for many reasons.  Federal buildings, museums and parks are no longer shuttered.  Federal and state workers, contractors, and private sector workers who depend on them are soon to receive paychecks again (although private sector workers likely won't see pay for their lost weeks).  States will be reimbursed for money they paid up front to keep benefits and services flowing.  And thousands of families can feel secure for now that their child's Head Start or subsidized child care classroom will remain open, that they will continue getting help to feed a baby or toddler through the WIC program, and that if they can't make ends meet due to a job loss or pay cut, they will be able to get help from job training centers and SNAP nutrition assistance.    

But even as we celebrate the resumption of federal operations, we need to look closely at the true costs of start-and-stop government, including the damage it does to high-quality, reliable, and effective public services.  When you tally the real costs this way, they add up to far more than the short-term economic losses for families and communities. 

One vivid example is the damage to quality in early childhood programs, like Head Start and child care.  Public officials and voters say that we want a high bar for early learning programs so crucial to school readiness and the wellbeing of young children.  We want highly trained teachers, strong curricula, rigorous standards, and well-managed, efficient operations.  That's what we say - but let's look at what we do.

To put in perspective the way this month's shutdown affects quality, I think back to the last time the government shut down, in the winter of 1995-96. I was Commissioner of the Administration on Children, Youth, and Families at HHS.  I remember sitting in an almost-empty federal building talking on the phone with directors of local Head Start programs who were spending their days in crisis meetings with families and staff and talking to their banks to find out how much they could borrow to keep programs operating without federal funds.  Even if directors succeeded in keeping the lights on in the short run, the long-term damage to their programs lay in what they had to stop doing.   While they were responding to the crisis, they were not recruiting and keeping quality staff, improving training programs, or enriching the curriculum.  And even programs that stayed open risked later damage to staff morale and retention.  It's hard to blame an early childhood teacher for taking a better-paying job in another field when she has just spent three weeks worrying that she could be laid off and unable to pay her family's rent.

In the 2013 shutdown, these damaging but hidden costs have appeared in state early childhood programs as well.  At least two states reduced staffing for child care monitors who are responsible for visiting local child care programs, assessing quality, and ensuring children are safe in care.  These monitors and other state-level staff feel the same deep hits in morale as  local program personnel  when they  realize they can be let go on what feels like a whim - and those with other options may well leave.   At the same time, progress gets sidelined at the most senior levels too, when state cabinet secretaries and commissioners lose weeks of their time to crisis management - juggling resources to fix the shortfall of the day - and their federal counterparts lose weeks to furloughs.  Further, as states struggle to move money so they can keep basic child care subsidies available to families, they are likely putting quality investments like teacher training on hold.   

To make things worse, in 2013, Head Start and state child care programs came into the shutdown already shaky from sequester-driven budget cuts - far different from eighteen years ago, when Head Start programs had been expanding.  Going into the shutdown this time, Head Start programs had already cut salaries, laid off or furloughed staff, consolidated classrooms, trimmed anything not essential to day-to-day services, and in many cases had still been forced to send children away.   Just like the shutdown, the sequester cuts are arbitrary - not related to need or to high standards for quality or to priority choices.  So they are yet another drain on time, energy, and morale, redirecting teachers and administrators alike from longer-term improvement to day-to-day survival.

And with this week's deal, there is another difference from 1995-96:  today, we are emerging from two weeks of shutdown with the next drop-dead date just three months away, ongoing sequester cuts still in place, and major budget decisions still unsettled.  Will state and local staff feel secure enough over the coming months to raise their gaze to longer-term investments in quality - or will they focus on survival and keep all the good ideas on hold until they see the long-term plan?  We don't know the answer, but we do know that our national politics have made it far harder than necessary for state and local staff to do the right thing.

It's not just in early childhood programs.  States juggled funds during the shutdown to keep cash assistance benefits flowing -- but they suspended some job training contracts meant to help families get work and no longer need benefits, and some job search centers reduced hours or closed their doors.    Doing business this way forces everyone from top officials to social workers and teachers to plug holes and fix crises rather than do their best work, torpedoing their ability to deliver the kinds of public programs elected officials and voters say we want:   effective, high-payoff, responsive, and high-quality.   

When we ask for high performance, but then burden our programs with brinksmanship, shutdowns, start-and-stop budgets, and arbitrary cuts, it's like asking an athlete to race with his or her shoelaces tied together.  We ask government to do hard things - to find cures for diseases, to help children overcome the disadvantages of poverty, to rebuild distressed communities.  We need to give programs the funding, and the stability, they need to succeed.

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